The legend of the loch may be 80 years old, but this unseen octogenarian still has a monster following, as Peter Ross discovers
‘DO NOT dally! Do not dally!” Adrian Shine – naturalist, force of nature and erstwhile monster hunter – is leading the way through the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre, which he designed, and which is home to some of the “toys” he has used in 40 years of exploring this and other lochs, including a tiny home-made submarine. He is a tall man with a hawkish profile and great white beard, striding the darkened corridors in a three-piece tweed suit and tartan tie, his mellifluous voice sounding in the murk. It is like being led around the chocolate factory by Willy Wonka, or by the Doctor showing off his Tardis.
Shine, who is 64, moved to the Highlands from his native Surrey in 1973, a restless maverick seeking “fame and glory, even in the cannon’s mouth – youth is like that”. He was part of a wave of amateur investigators each keen to find evidence that, depending on their own beliefs, the monster did or did not exist. There was something about that moment, in the late Sixties, early Seventies, as the countercultural tide lapped up against the shore of science, when anything – Atlantis, UFOs, Nessie – seemed possible, and Loch Ness became a proving ground for anyone with a working boat and a working theory.
Yet the monster legend predates the hippy era. Accounts of a mysterious creature in the loch go back to around 700AD when Adomnán, the abbot of Iona, wrote that St Columba had once driven away the monster as it was on the point of devouring one of his followers.
However, the birth of the Loch Ness Monster as a global media and tourism phenomenon is about to have its 80th anniversary. Nessie may be a plesiosaur; she may be a sturgeon; she may even be a he – the theories are endless – but one thing is sure: she will very shortly be an octogenarian.
It was on 14 April, 1933, while driving along the north-western shore of the loch, near Abriachan pier, that Aldie Mackay, manageress of the Drumnadrochit Hotel, is said to have spotted an enormous creature with a body resembling that of a whale rolling in the roiling water. “Stop!” she yelled to her husband, John, who was driving. “The beast!”
Aldie Mackay made no mention of the now iconic long neck, or at least that did not feature in the account of her sighting which was published in the Inverness Courier, headlined “Strange Spectacle In Loch Ness”, on 2 May. She herself was shy of publicity and was not quoted in the article, fearing that people would say she should take more water in her whisky. It was the then editor, Evan Macleod Barron, who suggested that the creature should be described as a “monster” – and this story and soubriquet, together, proved so tantalising that they were retold by newspapers around the world, bringing journalists and then tourists flocking to an area of Scotland which had hitherto been rather obscure. “This,” says Adrian Shine, meaning the whole global phenomenon, “is Mrs Mackay’s legacy.”
A symposium on 6 April, as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, will celebrate that legacy – as well it might. The tiny lochside village of Drumnadrochit receives around 300,000 visitors each year; staggering, considering that the local population right around the loch is not quite 3,000.
Annual Nessie tourism is estimated to be worth around £30 million – spent on hotels and B&Bs, boat trips, food, monster-branded merchandise – and visitor numbers are said to spike following each new reported sighting. The huge green fibreglass beastie overlooking the A82 from the grounds of the Clansman Hotel is a snarling symbol of the legend’s economic importance; as much an emblem of the Nessie industry as the Finnieston crane is of Clydeside shipbuilding.
The grand Victorian Drumnadrochit Hotel, which Aldie Mackay managed, is now the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre, and it attracts people from all over the world. “We are in search of the monster,” say the Kim family from South Korea – a mum and dad and two young kids.
“It’s always at the back of your mind – ‘Will I be the one to see it?,’ ” says Gavin, who works in the area but is originally from Zimbabwe. He was still living in Africa when he first saw the Ted Danson movie about the monster and grew intrigued. “You just never know, do you?” says his work colleague, Fredericka, who hails from Ghana. “My husband lives in New York and he wants to come over here and see the monster.”
The loch, even without the legend, would be remarkable. Loch Ness is awesome and dreadful. It cries out for old words like that. Twenty miles long, a mile wide, 700 ft deep, a great bleak blackness, stained with peat; a swallower of men, aircraft, boats; insatiable and unfathomable.
On the day I visit, it is gorgeously sunny but bitter cold, -8 in Drumnadrochit as the sun began to rise over the black fir-serrated hump of hills above the southern shore. Spring has not quite sprung this far north. Lochside trees shake bare twisted talons of branches at the cheerful blue sky.
There have been generations of monster hunters, a sort of cryptozoological papacy full of heroes and villains, defenders of the faith and some who brought it into disrepute. Certain names still ring out in the Great Glen. The late Tim Dinsdale, an aeronautical engineer who led 56 expeditions between 1960 and 1987, and who shot an acclaimed black and white film which appeared to show a hump crossing the water. Robert Rines, the inventor, patent lawyer and Broadway composer, who, as a child, played a violin duet with Albert Einstein, and whose sighting in 1972 inspired him to spend the rest of his life seeking the monster, making an elegiac final expedition – in search of Nessie’s bones – in 2008, the year before his own death. And then there was Frank Searle, a hugely controversial figure, soldier-turned-greengrocer-turned-self-styled-“Monster-hunter extraordinary”, whose blue caravan and exhibition of photographs was a familiar sight on the loch-side in the mid-70s. He died eight years ago and is remembered now for his hoaxed pictures and aggressive conflicts with rival investigators.
“He was always offering to knife people,” Adrian Shine recalls. “Disembowelment was what was proposed for me.”
Shine had been a lazy and unpromising schoolboy, a classic young naturalist of the time, collecting frogspawn and birds’ eggs. He came to Scotland because he didn’t know quite what to do with his life. He had travelled to India, fascinated by the big game hunter Jim Corbett, and was considering becoming the first man to row across the Atlantic when he chanced upon a book about Morag, the monster said to live in Loch Morar. He decided that he was the very chap to find this beast and headed north, rowing out into the loch at night and spending hours, drifting in the dark, offering himself as bait. He saw himself as a “knight errant”, out to prove his manhood and make his name. Instead, he came to believe that Morag did not exist and later turned his attentions to Loch Ness with the same sceptical mindset, setting out to prove the absence of a monster by the process of elimination, culminating in 1987’s Operation Deepscan – in which a fleet of boats swept the loch with sonar. These days, Shine is more fascinated by the environment of the loch itself rather than the notion of a mysterious creature which has not been proved to exist.
“It was going to be a very quick route to fame and fortune but didn’t quite work out that way,” he says, reflecting on his years here. “I came here to conquer, to raid, to take home the spoils, but it was me who was captured.”
The loch does, however, still have at least one true believer. Steve Feltham moved here on 19 June, 1991, chucking his job and girlfriend, and he recently entered the Guinness Book of Records for his Nessie-seeking vigil. He lives in a converted mobile library at the side of the loch in the village of Dores with an adopted stray cat called “Miaow”, and makes his living selling small model monsters mounted on rocks washed ashore. He passes his nights reading about Nessie and playing the piano badly. He gets his water from a nearby tap and keeps warm by burning driftwood on a stove sourced on eBay.
I had heard that he recently got married to a local woman, but he explains that it was a ceremony at Rock Ness, in an inflatable church, which was not legally binding, though it means a lot to them. He spends each day watching the loch, bearing witness, always hopeful that he will see and film the monster. He is 50 now and thinks it quite possible that he will spend the rest of his life on this spot.
He is “ecstatic” about his continuing adventure and only “mildly disappointed” that he has not yet solved the mystery. He consoles himself with the thought that when, eventually, he does film Nessie, the length of his stay will lend authenticity to his findings. He does not come across as a crank. He is more like some sort of religious hermit – keeping the faith in the wilderness – albeit one who pops into the local pub for wifi.
Even true believers need a break now and then, of course, and it turns out that Feltham has only just returned from a month in Guatemala. But – and it is a big but – he spent most of his time sitting next to Lake Atitilan, where there is believed to be a monster; so, a busman’s holiday of sorts. He is, for me, the guardian spirit of Loch Ness, the keeper of a flame passed from St Columba to Aldie Mackay to Adrian Shine and on down the years. Not that he would put it that way. “I’m the world champion,” he sighs, “of sitting on a beach and seeing bugger all.”